Matheus Duarte is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of St Andrews, where he works on the project The Global War Against the Rat and the Epistemic Emergence of Zoonosis. His fellowship at CRASSH is part of a collaboration between the Wellcome-funded project ‘The Global War Against the Rat’, the ERC-funded project The Global as Artefact, and the Centre for Global Knowledge Studies (gloknos) at the University of Cambridge.
Q: Matheus, you recently joined CRASSH as a Visiting Fellow. Could you tell us a little bit about what you are working on during your fellowship?
At CRASSH, I am working on the epistemological and social history of the concept of rural plague in Brazil, on how it framed the Brazilian semi-arid region – known as the backlands – the rodents and the people living there, as a source of disease. I am also interested in understanding how the research conducted on that region produced new knowledge on zoonosis, and how this research connected with broader discussions on the ecology of plague conducted in South America and other parts of the world, such as South Africa. In so doing, on the one hand, I hope to add a new layer to the historiography of science and animal studies in Brazil, more concerned sometimes with insects and tropical environments, and, on the other hand, to place Brazil in the global history of science and medicine. I presented this research in the workshop ‘Rural and Agrarian Disease Knowledge at Cambridge on 4 November, which I co-organised with Professors Christos Lynteris (St Andrews) and Inanna Hamati-Ataya (Cambridge). We hope the papers presented there will soon be published in an edited volume.
Q: What drew you to your research initially and what parts do you find particularly interesting?
This research is part of a larger project entitled ‘The Global War Against the Rat and the Epistemic Emergence of Zoonosis’, coordinated by Professor Christos Lynteris. In several respects, my postdoc is also a continuation of my doctoral research, developed at Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS-Paris), which was about a global history of microbiology through the circulation of knowledge about plague between Brazil, India, and France from 1894 to 1922. My central question during the PhD and the postdoc remains the same: what is Brazil’s place in the world at the end of the 19 century and the first half of the 20 century, when we are talking about science and medicine? I was drawn to this research because of a certain disagreement at times with the Brazilian historiography of science, when it assumes a sort of peripheral position of Brazil or when it framed the production of knowledge in Brazil in only national terms, paying little attention to the global side. That is why I started, in 2015, to study the Third Plague Pandemic (1894-1950) and the central role of Brazil in reshaping, with a global range, knowledge about vaccines, sera, and anti-rat campaigns to face the disease. I should say that the Covid-19 pandemic generated a new wide interest in my research, by showing, unfortunately, how we must take this sort of event as a global one.
Q: Are there any writers or books that have impacted your research in particular?
I was very impacted by the reading of Os sertões [Rebellion in the Backlands], by Euclides da Cunha. Published in 1902, this book is a masterpiece of Brazilian literature, sociology, geography, etc, and retraces the true history of a war between the inhabitants of the backlands, under the command of a prophet, Antonio Conselheiro, and the Brazilian army, between 1896 and 1897. It was this book that made me fall in love with the backlands. On a more academic side, I should mention the work of Kapil Raj, Relocating Modern Science, which was the first time that I saw and read someone talking about India at the time of the British empire as not a peripheral space and about the agency of the Indians to negotiate with the British (even if in asymmetrical positions) and to construct new and original scientific knowledge. Raj’s examination inspired me to think about Brazil in a global framework.
Q: If you are currently working on a book, could you tell us about it?
I am currently converting my PhD thesis as a book in English (I wrote my thesis in French) and I have been working for a while in an article that I hope will be published next year in the Medical Anthropology journal as part of a special issue on disease reservoirs. In the article, I reconstruct the history of the idea of sylvatic diseases, which are still in place to explain the epidemiology of a few diseases, such as plague and yellow fever. I show, firstly, how the concept of sylvatic plague – the first sylvatic disease – crafted by the Portuguese doctor Ricardo Jorge between 1926 and 1928, borrowed from colonial and post-colonial imaginaries about the Brazilian Amazon as a land without people and full of animals. Nonetheless, as I discuss in the following parts of the article, there was no plague in the Amazon and Jorge invented this concept to explain the emergence of plague reservoirs among wild rodents in what he called ‘desertic’ places, such as the South African veld and California. Finally, I discuss how Brazilians adapted this concept in the 1940s to think about the possible emergency of a plague reservoir in the country, showing the ways by which in Brazil sylvatic plague passed to mean a future Amazon plague. In a nutshell, the article is a global history of how previous ideas, not linked to medicine, about the Amazon allowed the invention of a medical concept that framed animal reservoirs of plague in other parts of the world and how this concept finished to frame the Amazon as a potential plague reservoir.
Q: If you have recently published, could you tell us about it?
An article I have co-written with my colleague Jules Skotnes-Brown from St Andrews University on Emerging Infectious Disease (EID) was recently accepted and will be published soon on a special issue on ISIScb about Pandemics. In this paper, we retraced the history of the EID concept, and examined how the broad idea of ’emergence’ appeared in the historiography of medicine before and after the invention of the EID concept. This essay was part of an Open Peer Review Project, and the readers can find not only the first versions of our essay but also the peer reviews.